Led Zeppelin wins 'Stairway to Heaven' copyright dispute

The copyright battle dates to 2014, when the estate of Spirit frontman Randy Wolfe sued Led Zeppelin.

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By Gwen Aviles

Led Zeppelin prevailed in a long-running copyright dispute after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict saying the rock band's 1971 megahit "Stairway to Heaven" did not illegally borrow from Spirit's 1968 track "Taurus."

"The trial and appeal process has been a long climb up the 'Stairway to Heaven,'" read the judges' opinion, which was filed Monday and affirmed "that Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' did not infringe Spirit's 'Taurus.'"

The copyright battle dates to 2014, when the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe sued Led Zeppelin, alleging copyright infringement. Wolfe, whose stage name was Randy California, died in 1997.

A jury ruled against the estate two years later, after which attorneys for the estate sought a new trial. In 2018, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court ruled in favor of the estate. In response, Led Zeppelin's attorneys sought a rehearing before the full 9th Circuit, which heard the case in September.

The court's decision may establish new standards in the music industry, which, coinciding with the rise of streaming platforms, has been plagued by a flurry of copyright lawsuits in recent years. In issuing its ruling, the court overturned the "inverse ratio rule," which stated that the more access an alleged infringer has to a plaintiff's work, the less similarity between the works was needed to establish infringement.

"The flaws in the rule can be seen in the inconsistent ways in which we have applied the rule within our circuit," reads the opinion. "Nothing in copyright law suggests that a work deserves stronger legal protection simply because it is more popular or owned by better-funded rights holders."

The judges also added that they would not extend copyright protection to just a few notes, proclaiming that "a four-note sequence common in the music field is not the copyrightable expression in a song."

The ruling marks a direct contrast to the 9th Circuit Court' 2015 verdict that concluded that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' 2013 song "Blurred Lines" infringed on Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up."

Diana Dasrath contributed.